A victory parade participant wears a Putin hoodie.

A victory parade participant wears a Putin hoodie.

Foto:

Anton Vaganov / REUTERS

"There's Something Bad that Runs Deep in People" How Putin's War Changed My Moscow

DER SPIEGEL Moscow Correspondent Christian Esch has lived in the Russian capital for the past 14 years. But now even those familiar to him have become partly unrecognizable. Why, he asks, do so many people here support the war?
By Christian Esch in Moscow

As he leafs through my passport, the young man in civilian clothing asks: "Were you in Bucha?" We are sitting in a windowless room in Terminal 2 of Sheremetyevo Airport. I'm back in Moscow, the city where I have lived for 14 years, for the first time in six months and apparently the Russian state has a few questions for me this time.

The border guard had first withheld my passport. Then two other officers had a conversation with me. "What do you think about the military special operation?" one asked when the other had already left the room. "Special military operation" – that's the name of the invasion of Ukraine in Russian neologism. "War is terrible," I replied. So now, after hours of waiting, the second call. The young man introduced himself as Alik, and he is presumably with the FSB secret service.

DER SPIEGEL 32/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2022 (August 6th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

And the truth is that yes, I was in Bucha, the suburb of Kyiv, and I saw the crimes Russian soldiers committed against Ukrainian civilians there, even if Russia's leadership claims that the whole thing was staged by the Western media – that is, by people like me. I have seen the aftermath of Putin's attack in Ukraine, and just as Alik has questions for me, I have questions for Russia. What's going on in this country, a country waging a war that is inconceivable to me, a country I have known for so long and yet understand so poorly?

Alik is satisfied with a simple "yes" to his question. He politely asks to see the photos on my phone (I politely decline) and not to write so badly about Russia (I mumble an evasive reply). After a good three hours, the wait is over and I've made it. I'm in the country.

In the time I have spent living in Moscow, I have taken it upon myself to correct the mental geography of my German friends. The same Berliners who flew to Athens, Palermo or Madrid for short trips had no idea that Moscow was only a two-and-a-half-hour flight away. Russia seemed infinitely far away to them, and I found that unfortunate.

Putin and world politics have proven me wrong, and Moscow has become a distant place. Direct flights from Germany are no longer available. My Aeroflot flight from Antalya to Sheremetyevo took a five-hour detour to the Kazakh border to avoid the airspace over southern Russia. Moscow is now a long-haul flight.

If you didn’t know that Russia is waging a war on its neighboring country, you wouldn't notice it in Moscow. The letter "Z," used as a symbol of "military special operation," is barely seen here – neither on buildings nor on private cars. Occasionally, a portrait of a soldier hangs on the side of the road, but that's about it. The public space is free of the clamor of war.

But television and radio are full of it. I realize this when I turn on my radio at home, which used to be tuned to Echo Moscow. Although the station belonged to a Gazprom subsidiary, it was the forum of liberal, opposition-minded Moscow. Instead of music, there were discussions and talk shows. It had been the soundtrack of my everyday life in Moscow.

When I turned my radio on again in Moscow in July, another station had taken over the 91.2 frequency: Radio Sputnik, a propaganda station of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), a state media group. There's talk on the station about a Russian missile attack on Vinnytsia. A young female voice explains why excessive compassion for civilians in Ukraine is inappropriate. "I also feel sorry for dogs and cats and horses and birds," she says in a coquettish tone. "But with such an attitude, one shouldn't have started the whole thing."

Echo Moscow, founded in 1990, was forced to close in March for allegedly spreading "fake news" about the "special military operation" in Ukraine.

In a restaurant just behind the Foreign Ministry, I meet Alexei Venediktov, who headed the station for more than 24 years. He has a fuzzy white mane and looks a bit like a mad professor.

For me, Venediktov is the epitome of the Moscow that perished for good on Feb. 24 – a city in which democracy had been abolished, but where those in power and the opposition still interacted socially. The ties hadn't been severed completely.

It was Venediktov’s ambition not to divide the world in friends and foes, to walk the line between government and opposition, to mediate between the sides. He had drunk wine with Putin, knew ministers, was friends with Putin's spokesman and with the head of the propaganda channel RT. On his radio station, he regularly opened up the floor to bellicose opponents of democracy, people like the writer Alexei Prokhanov. After Echo Moscow's closure, the latter said: Whoever wants to keep listening to it can "put his ear to the ground. Do you hear the sound of tanks driving through the Donbas? That's me talking."

Every autumn, Venediktov and his station had a big party where government officials, Duma deputies, Pussy Riot activists and opposition politicians met. They enjoyed wine and canapés in Zurab Tsereteli's art gallery, amidst kitschy portraits of czars and a massive, walk-in apple with erotic reliefs. Even the elderly Mikhail Gorbachev came. At the entrance stood the host, eccentrically dressed in a lumberjack shirt and safety vest, a cheerful master of ceremonies for a repressed and yet still functioning society. They still met at his place, even if, over the years, fewer officials and businesspeople attended.

Now, the Russia of hues and semitones has perished, once and for all. The regime demands unambiguity, commitment. Venediktov has lost his role.

"I knew on Feb. 24 that they were going to close my station. Even if we only played music," says Venediktov. But he probably hastened the end. "I went to the studio early in the morning and said: 'This will have disastrous consequences for my country. Putin has made a colossal mistake.' Putin judged that to be a betrayal."

A participant in the Moscow victory parade bearing the "Z" symbol for the war.

A participant in the Moscow victory parade bearing the "Z" symbol for the war.

Foto: Andrej Krementschouk / Agentur Focus

Betrayal is a central category in Putin's thinking. There are enemies and traitors, he told Venediktov in a conversation lasting several hours in the summer of 2000, after the first PR disaster of his presidency, the sinking of the Kursk submarine.

Enemies fight you openly, you know where you stand, Putin declared at the time. Traitors stab you in the back. You can get along with enemies. But there can be no mercy for traitors.

"And where do I fall in this construction?" asked Venediktov.

"An enemy," Putin said with a laugh.

"Now, I've moved into the other category," Venediktov says. In April, Venediktov was personally declared a "foreign agent," the term used to label media and individuals who are allegedly under foreign influence or receive foreign funding. Many officials have since broken off contact with Venediktov.

In early March, with the station already closed, Venediktov met with Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT. He calls her Margo, and the two are friends. Venediktov had brought photos of Ukrainian children killed in the war. "I said: 'Margo, they're kids like yours.' I thought she would tell me something about collateral damage now. But her eyes glazed over, and she said: 'The Nazis bombed themselves. This is staged.'" Venediktov says: "She's not pretending. She really believes it." He broke off contact.

One might wonder how the head of Russia's only radio station critical of the Kremlin could be friends with the propaganda chief in the first place. What did he expect?

Some members of the opposition saw Venediktov as a half-collaborator, at best a harmless court jester.

2012: Then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow

2012: Then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow

Foto: Sharifulin Valery / picture alliance

Venediktov views Simonyan's lack of empathy for Ukraine's children as reflective of Russian society writ large. "Eleven million Russian families have close relatives in Ukraine. That means there are 40 million people who have a mother, father, brother, sister or grandchildren there. And then such support for the war. How can that be?" He says the propaganda alone isn't enough to explain it. "There's something bad that runs deep in people. It's about the younger brother Ukraine, who is viewed as a traitor because he wants to live better than you do."

It is also difficult for me to describe the relationship of Russians to Ukrainians because it is changing. Each generation of Russians has its own Ukraine. To the elderly, Ukraine is just a region where people speak a funny peasant dialect and like to eat bacon. Over time, they came to accept that there is a separate state for bacon eaters. But they could not see it as a foreign country.

For younger Russians, Ukraine is a foreign country. It doesn't bother them if the country strives to move closer to the West. And the eight years of estrangement since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 have left a stronger mark on them.

To me, young and old alike seem to have a poor understanding of Ukraine. The younger people have the advantage of at least being aware of this. Putin is 69 years old. He has no idea how little he knows about Ukraine.

Venediktov believes that Putin divides not only people, but also peoples, into enemies and traitors. "The Baltic states are Putin's enemies. Ukrainians are traitors – a part of our people who left, deserted, went over to the cursed NATO and the West." That's how Venediktov explained it to the president of Latvia the other day. It's Russia’s supposed proximity to the Ukrainians that explains the willingness to use force.

It was only in hindsight, after his initial horror at the attack had passed, that Venediktov found himself able to grasp the logic of Putin's actions. "This 'special operation' fits him like a glove," Venediktov says. "Putin is a fanatic." Venediktov says the Russian leader's world view has been firmly established for many years. "It's not Putin that surprises me, but Russian society."

At the end of March, someone placed a pig's head in front of Venediktov's apartment door, and a Ukrainian coat of arms and the word "Judensau" (Jewish pig) were pasted on the door. On the other hand, people approach him on the street and thank him for still being in Russia. "As long as I'm not physically threatened, I will stay in the country," Venediktov says. "But the only thing you can do right now is comfort, heal, reassure."

Most of my Russian colleagues, friends and acquaintances left Moscow, the lion's share in early March, when the rumor emerged of a possible declaration of a state of war. An entire part of the city simply vanished. Now, some are starting to come back. In the relationship between those who left the country and those who stayed, one senses disappointment and mutual hurt. Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and opposition politician, has accused all those who remain in the country of bearing "personal responsibility for the war." One journalist friend who stayed says, "My circle of friends has shrunk radically.” He feels bitter about the moral arrogance shown toward those who remained. "The whole creative class showed its true colors," he says.

"There is no good decision. There is only a choice between two bad ones," says Marina Litvinovich, whom I meet in a café. Litvinovich is a civil rights activist and opposition politician with an interesting past. When she was young, she worked for the Kremlin as a spin doctor, then for billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Kasparov and Ksenia Sobchak, a glamorous celebrity who ran against Vladimir Putin in 2018 at the Kremlin's request to liven up the dull election campaign.

Litvinovich called for protests at the very beginning of the Ukraine invasion. She was arrested as she left her home. In April, she called for people to stay in the country: "There will be a lot of work here," she wrote. "Who's going to do it when you all run away?"

Litvinovich has conducted focus groups to investigate what is going on in the minds of Russians who support the "special military operation." She speaks of an almost religious conviction of the correctness of the war. "You can't convince them with rational arguments. They claim we didn't start the war – because we're the good guys. We don't kill peaceful citizens – because we're the good guys. We don't destroy cities – because we're the good guys. When you ask people about Bucha and Mariupol, they say: Our soldiers aren't capable of doing that."

This is the direct result of the Kremlin's world war rhetoric. It presents the invasion of Ukraine as a necessary step to complete the victory over Hitler's Germany. It speaks of the struggle against Nazism as if the very idea of a Ukrainian nation-state were fascist. It charges a modern conflict with energies from the past.

"People can't accept the idea that we're the bad guys. It would destroy their world, their country, their view of everything that has happened in the past 30 years," Litvinovich says. She compares it to the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, as a teenager, she had just joined Komsomol, the communist youth league. "It was a shock when everything that had been good was suddenly considered to be bad. There was constant talk of Stalin and his repressions."

Perhaps the Russians' belief in the clean war and the clean army can't be shaken, says political expert Litvinovich. "Perhaps we should just leave people to their belief and focus on Putin and his criminal orders. Just as everything was first blamed on Stalin back then."

Opposition politician Marina Litvinovich: "When you ask people about Bucha and Mariupol, they say: 'Our soldiers aren't capable of doing that.'"

Opposition politician Marina Litvinovich: "When you ask people about Bucha and Mariupol, they say: 'Our soldiers aren't capable of doing that.'"

Foto: Nanna Heitmann / Magnum Photos / DER SPIEGEL

Litvinovich speaks freely and at ease, as if nothing could happen to her. Her youngest son is 10 years old. Until he's 14, she has a good chance of being spared imprisonment. But that's not something you can really rely on in Russia. She knows what it's like in the prisons from her visits to them as a civil rights activist. It's time to prepare: go to the dentist again, check the children's documents, make plans for an extended absence.

"A few years in prison is fine with me," she says. "Seven is too many, but let's say three." Seven years in a prison camp – that's the sentence Moscow municipal council member Alexei Gorinov got for criticizing the war. Prosecutors went after him with a law punishing "fake news" about the army.

Nothing distinguishes Russian society from Ukrainian society more than the willingness to submit to an almost monarchical form of rule. It simply has not learned otherwise. Within three decades, Ukraine has experienced five genuine changes of power, whereas Russia has seen none.

Even among the elite, nobody sees themselves as being able to influence the president. The days when Putin depended on them and acted as an arbiter between different clans are long gone. Now the elite depends on Putin. And they are trembling. Resistance, even fleeing, seems futile.

"You can't run away in a submarine," says one well-connected businessman. "I told my kids: The task now is to survive."

"Putin has made a mistake of such fantastic magnitude that he will never be able to admit it. You'd rather take poison," says a former senior official. He says it took him a month and a half to recover from the shock of the attack on Ukraine. "I woke up every morning wondering if this was even true."

Wouldn't it then make sense to criticize the war? "I don't comment on political issues," the man says. "Besides, you can't change anything, anyway."

It's unclear who even still has influence at all over Putin in this autocratic system. The way the answer to that question is delivered is more interesting than the answer itself. "Yuri Kovalchuk. Is almost a second Putin," whispers one, pointing to the ceiling to indicate listening devices. Kovalchuk is a childhood friend of Putin and a banker who is said to have permanent access to the president. Then the interviewee says goodbye: "Be careful! There have been a lot of informants in Moscow lately."

People marching with portraits of family members and soldiers during the victory parade on Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2022.

People marching with portraits of family members and soldiers during the victory parade on Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2022.

Foto: Andrej Krementschouk / Agentur Focus

It's not only fear that makes the Moscow elite compliant. There is also a new experience of powerlessness: being sanctioned by Western governments, being turned away by Western banks. "There's a new class of people emerging right now who are interested in the survival of Putin's regime, so that they don't get their assets stripped from them at home, too," the former official says. "The whole establishment has become Putin's hostage. This is true even of his successors. Russia will be isolated for years to come."

What is true for the elite is also true for many ordinary Russians. In their view, the sanctions confirm that this war is in fact not an attack by Russia on Ukraine, but a defensive struggle against an overpowering, resentful West.

"They say we started the war in the Donbas and Ukraine. But in truth, the collective West unleashed it," Putin said in July. He was referring to the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, in his eyes an aggressive act by the West and, in a sense, the original sin from which all the woes follow.

According to that argumentation, Russia commenced the "special operation" in 2022, but the West started the "war" in 2014. "How can a person think a war is good? War is always bad," a cab driver says when I ask him about his views. I breathe a sigh of relief. "But it wasn't us who started it," he adds, before defending the "special operation" and lambasting the foolish Ukrainians, whom he says elected a clown to the presidency. "They should have voted with their heads for once!" he shouts.

Even Muscovites themselves can’t say what the majority thinks about the war, because they don't talk much among themselves about it. I hear both support and criticism.

"On TV, they showed soldiers' mothers proudly talking about their fallen sons. I would be jumping at the throats of the army people: Give me back my son! How dare you send him to war!" says one neighbor.

"I'm disappointed in the Russians," says the colleague, himself a Donetsk native who spent years castigating the Ukrainian government's crackdown on the "people's republics." Now, he condemns Russia's attack on Ukraine.

Just as there are few signs of the war in Moscow, sanctions are scarcely palpable here. My German credit card is rejected, but new exchange offices have sprung up all over the place. Some beverage packaging is only printed on one side because the necessary color is missing. Western car manufacturers have pulled out, and spare parts are now bought through online shops. Apple and Nike are also gone. The large McDonald's on Pushkin Square, opened in Soviet times, is now called "Vkusno & tochka," or "tasty and that's it," and the hamburgers and fries have a slightly different flavor. Burger King is still open.

Overall, though, they are ridiculously small changes. The sanctions have cast their shadow on Russia's future, but not on the present. It is still possible to pretend that nothing is amiss, that life goes on, that Russia isn't trying to destroy its neighboring country. There is no siren air alarm wailing, no anti-aircraft guns booming – only a shopping assortment that has slightly changed. For those who have seen Bucha, the contrast is hard to bear.

Next to the U.S. Embassy, which is largely empty and bears a notice outside its entrance warning against travel to Russia, I meet one of the few people who have really longed for the current conflict. We sit down in a smokers' room in the basement of a shopping center, with erotic photographs hanging on the wall.

Alexander Borodai, a member of the Duma with the Kremlin's United Russia party, is a chubby-cheeked man who is quick and nervous when he speaks. I saw him for the first time in 2014, in Donetsk. At the time, Borodai was declared the "prime minister" of the newly formed "Donetsk People's Republic." I thought it was a bizarre decision. Couldn't the alleged separatists have presented someone more convincing than a Moscow spin doctor who didn't have the slightest connection to the Donbas? It doesn't matter, Borodai told me at the time, we are all Russian people. By that point, he had already helped annex Crimea.

A conservative and staunch defender of the Russian empire, Borodai would have preferred to expand the war to all of Ukraine at the time. For people like him, it was a disappointment that Russia agreed to the Minsk cease-fire agreements in 2014 and 2015. Instead of renewing the empire, Putin had stopped halfway.

Now Borodai, who just turned 50, is seeing his dreams fulfilled. "For me, an important and, yes, rather joyous time has begun," he admits. "Nobody said good times were easy."

The member of parliament with the governing party is now on the road, gun in hand, in the neighboring country. He heads the Union of Donbas Volunteers, a veterans' organization that currently maintains three battalions of 400 men and two detachments of 250 men in Ukraine. About 1,500 of his men have already fallen, Borodai admits. It's an absurdly high number. Russia's Defense Ministry hasn't reported casualty figures for four months.

Borodai always refers to Ukraine as "the so-called Ukraine" – for him it's not a state, but merely a colony of the West that belongs "reunited with the rest of Russia." He admits, of course, that there are Ukrainians who don't want that. But he says that with his Ukrainian surname, he has "at least as much right to decide on this as a Zelenskyy, who isn't even Ukrainian by blood." The comment is a jab at Zelenskyy's Jewish origin. And even in the city of Kyiv, Borodai claims, many people would quickly switch sides "when they realize that power and victory is on our side." So, where the war will stop? "At the latest on the western border of Ukraine," he says.

That's the shrill sound of war – civil war, as Borodai calls it. As the rest of Moscow pretends to be at peace in the cafes, Borodai dreams in his smokers' parlor of retroactively correcting the disintegration of the Soviet Union – with the liquidation of Ukraine not excluded. This had all once been the dream of a radical outsider. But now it is the dream of Russia's leadership, and Borodai’s only fear is that Putin might again seek premature peace, as he did in Minsk.

Borodai hasn't changed. Dmitri Trenin, on the other hand, whom I meet in a corner café on Moscow’s Boulevard Ring, is a different person than before, and that upsets me, because he played a major role in my work. A friendly older gentleman with a mustache, a husky voice and a brilliant mind, he taught me how Russia looks at the world. One of his colleagues joked years ago that in the ideal Russia of the future, Trenin would be the Kremlin's national security adviser. Trenin seemed equally at home in the West and in Russia. The foreign and security policy expert was the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, the branch of an American think tank that has since been closed by the Russian government. On the other hand, he had also served in the Army for two decades, for a time as a liaison officer in Potsdam, Germany, during the Cold War.

Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk People's Republic during a press conference given in 2014 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk People's Republic during a press conference given in 2014 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Foto: Getty Images

Trenin has always been patriotic, and some considered him too close to the Kremlin. But I appreciated his sober analyses. He found Putin's fixation on NATO's eastward expansion exaggerated, and Russia's intervention on the side of the rebels in the Donbas in 2014 to be "the most serious mistake of Putin's foreign policy." He argued that it isn't the territories of Ukraine that should be collected by Russia, but rather those inhabitants of Ukraine who would prefer to live in Russia. I read his last book as a pure rejection of the idea of a new war in Ukraine.

Just a week before Putin's invasion of Ukraine, when Washington was warning daily of a Russian invasion, Trenin assured me with firm conviction: "A war was never planned." He was already talking in the past tense, as if the crisis were already over. He considered Putin's deployment of troops to merely be a threatening gesture.

The Trenin I meet in Moscow five months later is a changed man. Or had I just been wrong about him? Trenin hasn't uttered a single critical word about the invasion of the neighboring country since February. He supports a larger war effort. Trenin has insinuated that the West wants to "finally solve the 'Russian question" and, as such, there is no room for serious dialogue. Russia, he says, needs a "self-purification" of materialism and other wrong values, a new "Russian idea."

"I told my American friends right away on Feb. 24: I'm a veteran officer. So long as the war lasts, I will not say or write a word that could harm the Russian army, its leadership or the commander-in-chief," Trenin says in the café. He describes Russians who spoke out against the war as "hypocrites" because they hadn't criticized previous wars or as "anti-state." Besides, he adds, he's an advocate of realpolitik, not a pacifist.

Trenin strikes me as being something like a German professor in August 1914. He speculates coolly about a liquidation of the neighboring country (which, as a "maximum variant," is "unlikely") and about whether what is left of Ukraine will still have its capital in Kyiv ("currently open").

His hope is for Russia's "self-purification" through the war. "When so many people are sent to war – significantly more than in Chechnya – and kill or get killed there, it undermines the cult of money in the country." The old corrupt elites might even end up with some competition from the soldiers now fighting in Ukraine. The country needs an ideology now – "russkaya pravda," Russian truth or "justice,” as he has called it – and a different, managed economy.

Analysts who merely reflect on the world, Trenin argues, should out of principle not put themselves in the role of those who change the world. That's his explanation for why he didn't foresee Putin's moves. He had measured Putin against his own rationality. To me it sounds like: Putin isn't someone you understand. He's someone you follow.

On a Friday morning, I board a plane and fly two and a half hours east, to Yekaterinburg in the Urals, the hometown of Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. The city is home to a large Yeltsin Center, a museum and archive modeled on American presidential libraries. It provides a window into Russia's past before Putin, but also into a Russia as it might have become without Putin.

On television, the nineties now serve only as a dark foil against which Putin's rule is made to shine. But it was also a time of pluralism and media diversity and hope. The good as well as the bad that emerged in Russia had already been laid out.

At the entrance of the museum, an animated film tells Russia's story as that of a society striving for freedom. Various possible Yeltsin successors are portrayed, Putin being only one of them. In the end, Yeltsin can be heard with a weary voice handing over the official duties of office to Putin. "Be happy. You've earned it," he tells the Russians.

What might a future Putin center look like? What role will the invasion of Ukraine play in it? What message will a weary Putin give his citizens at the end of the exhibition?

The future of the Yeltsin years seemed open. Now, the country appears set for a long decline. "The best time of our lives is behind me," my colleague Lena told me in Moscow. It sounded infinitely sad.

Even the Yeltsin Center itself may no longer have a place in the new Russia. In February, it published an appeal against the war, which had to be taken off the website. It is often attacked on state television. All of Yekaterinburg is a "center of disgusting liberals," according to a talk show host loyal to Putin.

On Saturday, I put on running clothes and go to the dam in downtown Yekaterinburg. Each weekend, Evgeny Roisman, the city's former mayor, invites people for a group jog. Roisman is well-known throughout Russia. He is one of the few prominent Kremlin critics not yet in jail, and the country's most vocal opponent of the war. He tweeted that it was the "meanest, most shameful and unjust war Russia has ever waged."

"And I am by no means saying everything that I think," Roisman explained to me the night before. We sat together in the office of his relief fund while one visitor after the other asked for support. They asked for things like expensive medicines, legal help against a fraudulent car dealer or writerly advice for penning a poem against the war. Roisman listened to everyone with a stoic expression.

I had last seen Roisman in January 2021, while waiting at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport for the return of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had been recovering in Germany from his poisoning by the FSB. The two are friends. Officials immediately took Navalny into custody. "I was told at the time by a number of politicians: You could be the new leader! I asked: What for? So I can do time myself in a month?" There are currently three legal proceedings running against Roisman for "discrediting the armed forces." And yet he still has sympathy for those who don't openly oppose the war. He says there is serious passive resistance to this war. "This is Russia. Even if people are silent, that's worth something." In fact, even in Yekaterinburg, you see amazingly little propaganda for the war, no "Z" signs on the cars.

Opposition politician Evgeny Roisman (wearing a yellow shirt) while jogging in Yekaterinburg

Opposition politician Evgeny Roisman (wearing a yellow shirt) while jogging in Yekaterinburg

Foto: Sergey Poteryaev / DER SPIEGEL

Roisman doesn't see himself as a member of the opposition, which has ceased to exist since Navalny's arrest. He views himself as being outside of politics altogether. "My job is for people to see: You don't have to give up, you can continue to do what you think is right and beneficial without cooperating with the state power. I understand the risks."

In the Russia of 2022, that's already a lot. It is the comforting and healing that the radio journalist Venediktov spoke about in the Moscow restaurant. In a country where every protest is immediately dispersed, just arranging to go jogging every Saturday is a courageous act.

About 30 people came together this time. The route goes once around the city pond, past the Yeltsin Center and then back. It is a silent gathering of like-minded people, without flags or placards.

"I hope they don't put Roisman in jail," I tell Ruslan, who is running next to me and flew in from Moscow with his girlfriend to jog with the former mayor.

"And I hope they don't kill him," Ruslan says.

Hope in Russia has also gotten smaller.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.